Iranian national soccer team coach Afshin Ghotbi issued a stark challenge on the eve of Iran’s Asia Cup quarterfinal match this weekend against South Korea, calling for the beautiful game to be separated from politics.
Ghotbi, whose appointment as coach was reportedly authorized by conservative, soccer-carzy Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, cloaked his tall order in an appeal to Iranian players as they prepared for a game that has a symbolic value that goes far beyond the Asian tournament in Qatar.
"The national team belongs to the people and from the head coach and all the way to the ball boy, nobody should use it as a vehicle to express their political views,"Ghotbi, who is heading after Qatar to Japan to coach Shimizu S-Pulse told the Associated Press.
Iran two years ago lost its last qualifier against South Korea in a match that was mired by some Iranian players entering the pitch with green wristbands in support of mass protests against the disputed re-election of Ahmedinejad and Iranian fans shouting slogans against their government during the match in Seoul.
While Ghotbi, an Iranian who grew up in the United States, issued his appeal to his players, his call applies to soccer as an institution and not just in Iran but across the Middle East and North Africa. Politics permeates the game in Iran and elsewhere in the region at all levels. Iranian clubs like those in for example Egypt are government controlled, more often than not owned by state-run companies. Representatives of Iran’s Ministry of Youth and Sports sit on club boards while the Revolutionary Guards over the past two years have successfully increased their influence on the game.
Government officials fear the power of soccer in creating alternative public spaces where Iranians can vent pent-up anger and frustration with their leaders. That concern has been reinforced by past support for opposition figures by soccer personalities and institutions, including the managing board of Zob Ahan Football Club and a former coach of Persepolis FC, Asia’s most popular club.
Iranian soccer analysts believe that matches in the Tehran derby between Persepolis and
FC Taj have ended in draws over the last six years as a result of government match fixing. The analysts say the fixing is designed to prevent the often violent derby from escalating into anti-government protests. Iran’s successful World Cup qualifiers in 1997 and 2005 resulted in massive celebrations in the streets of Tehran, marked by public intoxication, dancing, and women removing their hijabs; the elimination of Iran from the 2001 World Cup qualifiers led to rioting.
Tractor Sazi FC, the storied club in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which is owned by Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), has become a flashpoint of the region’s identity politics. “Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” says a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.
A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Ahmedinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to polish his tarnished image and curry popular favour. The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian leader has been hands-on in the management of the Iranian team. The US cable reports that he pressured the Iranian football federation to lift its 2008 suspension of star Ali Karimi so that he could play in 2010 World Cup qualifiers, engineered the 2009 firing of Ali Daei as coach, ensured that Daei’s successor Mohamed Mayeli-Kohan lasted all of two weeks in the job and ultimately was succeeded by Ghotbi.
Ahmedinejad has justified his interference telling Iranian journalists that “unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”